RICHMOND — From Spotsylvania to Shiloh, Civil War enthusiasts for years have taken it upon themselves and their own passion for history to stage re-enactments of the most famous battles of the conflict.
Now, local and state officials are starting to get in on the playacting by underwriting the events, recognizing their investment can pay big dividends.
“In one word, it’s tourism,” said Jim Campi, policy director for the Civil War Preservation Trust. “It’s taken a while, but local and state officials have come to realize that Civil War battlefields and battlefield preservation can mean big bucks for their community.”
A study by the Washington group found that tourists at the seven battlefields it studied (including Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Shiloh in Tennessee and Virginia’s New Market and Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania sites) generated nearly $157 million in total visitor expenditures last year, and $22.4 million in local and state tax revenue.
Civil War sites are the destinations of 11.5 percent of visits to history-rich Virginia, according to a 2003 state tourism study.
In May, Spotsylvania County spent $250,000 for the restaging of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The two weeks of fighting between the troops of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in May 1864 left about 18,000 Union soldiers and close to 12,000 Confederates killed, wounded or missing.
The three-day restaging drew 4,000 re-enactors and 10,000 paying spectators, said Henry “Hap” Connors Jr., vice chairman of the county’s board of supervisors.
Doug Barnes, deputy county administrator, said the re-enactment cost $40,000 more than it took in, but sales and meals taxes and merchandise sales have yet to be fully measured.
Also, he said, the re-enactment was “more of a future marketing tool,” which has translated into visitors’ increased interest in the area.
“We are trying to show people that preservation and heritage tourism make for good economic development,” Mr. Connors said. “We don’t need to pave over battlefields to put big-box stores on them — we need to instead look at these historic and cultural treasures as opportunities to create new economic development opportunities.”
The first-time county sponsorship was a prelude to other events, including plans to commemorate the battle’s sesquicentennial in 2014, Mr. Connors said.
The Spotsylvania official sees historical preservation as a way to stem sprawl, but added that he and other slow-growth advocates aren’t necessarily at odds with developers.
“I’m not opposed to anybody making money, but we are starting to let them know what we want,” Mr. Connors said. “We’re starting to negotiate from a position of strength. We have tools available to manage this growth and we’re starting to use them.”
In Kentucky, state officials budgeted $10,000 to host the Battle of Perryville re-enactment Oct. 9-10, said Kurt Holman, manager of the Perryville Battlefield historical site.
“Port-A-Johns are the biggest single bite,” Mr. Holman said.
Musicians, hay for tents and horses and overtime and lodging for park rangers also were among the expenses.
About 5,900 spectators attended and 800 re-enactors went to Perryville, up from about 4,700 last year, state park officials said. Each overnight guest spends nearly $91 in the area; a day visitor about $39, said Kay Berggren, executive director of the local Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Perryville re-enactors also pay a registration fee, but Mr. Holman said that money goes directly to the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association.
Government officials are starting to realize that “when you preserve a significant portion of the battlefield, people will come and see it,” said Mr. Campi, of the Civil War Preservation Trust. “There’s been a real upsurge in visits to historic sites like battlefields.”
Such “heritage tourists” tend to have more money and are willing to spend it, he said. Many are retirement age, and have the time to stay in the community for more than a day.
But the key to preserving history for future generations is making the Civil War relevant or “cool” to young people, said Rob Hodge, a re-enactor and co-founder of Wide Awake Films, which coordinated Spotsylvania’s event in May and produces Civil War footage.
“You have to get to the children when you’re talking about such a significant event. Even if it’s 140 years old, you have to look at why it resonates in the 21st century,” Mr. Hodge said.
The question, he said, is “How do you make it viable — how do you make it a competitor to the addiction to sports or the addiction to survival shows? Cutting-edge technology might be the savior of the past.”
One proposal is to offer wireless Internet access on battlefields, where visitors can download and view imagery and information onto their laptop computers while they stand where troops once clashed.
“We’re competing against action movies,” Mr. Hodge said. “But the great American screenplay is the Civil War. The great American horror is the Civil War.”
The nation suffers from “a great cultural amnesia,” he said. “It’s our job, our mission, to try to breathe life into some of these things that collect dust.”